Celibacy and Power Politics

Why did the church ban priestly marriage?

Shefali O'Hara
4 min readJul 25, 2022


Photo by Father James on Unsplash

Celibacy has been associated with spirituality since ancient times. Among the Romans, celibacy was considered an aberration, but was expected of the Vestal Virgins, who took a 30-year vow of chastity. Buddhism required celibacy for monks. Aztec temple priests were also required to be celibate, as were Jain monks. Among Hindus, this type of asceticism was associated with the elderly.

Judaism and Islam, however, did not require celibacy. Among Jews, only the Essenes were celibate.

While Jesus is considered to have been celibate, as a Jewish man, there was no requirement that he be celibate. In Jewish tradition, priests were typically the sons of priests.

Some of the disciples were chaste, others were not. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul advises people to remain unmarried so they can focus on serving God vs. having the stress of supporting or caring for a family. However, he never said this was required.

St. Peter, whom the Catholic Church considers to be the first Pope, was married. Jesus Himself chose a married man as Pope. Historically, at least in the early days of the church, some Popes were the sons of Popes.

It was not until AD 304 that the Council of Elvira first mandated chastity. Then the Council of Nicea, in 325, rejected the ban on priests marrying.

By the early Middle Ages, however, priestly celibacy began to spread in the Western Church. By the 12th century, it was ruled that priests could not marry.

The reason was not morality, however.

While married priests had been guided by the same moral principles as the rest of the church — sex was only allowed within the context of marriage — they had not been otherwise restricted. They might follow periods of temporary celibacy but they were able to have families.

So what changed?

Christianity became financially prosperous. Because priests were not perfect but were fallible human beings, this fed worldly temptations.

Sex, money and power — the three worldly things that caused a reaction.



Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, writer, engineer. BSEE from MIT, MSEE, and MA in history. Love nature, animals, books, art, and interesting discussions.